Today (May 30, 2019) on the Tenure for the Common Good Facebook page, our fearless founder Carolyn Betensky posted a link to this blog post called “Is Your Prof Part-Time? 4 Reasons You Should Find Out” by Dan Edmonds. Edmonds makes a point that writ large deserves a round of applause from everyone concerned with contingent academic labor equity: students/families need to aware of the labor conditions under which faculty work at colleges they’re considering. He recommends searching for colleges on the Adjunct Project site at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (which doesn’t seem to have been updated in a couple of years, but that’s a post for another day), and then:
Ideally, you should couple this research with a more direct line of questioning to the schools you’re most interested in learning more about. The American Federation of Teachers has an excellent list of questions to ask a representative from colleges you’re interested in. If a school is standoffish about answering these questions, I’d advise pushing back and making it clear that the treatment of NTTF is an important factor you’ll be weighing in comparing schools. The better that a school’s contingent faculty are treated, the better they will perform.
So far so good, right? I would say so.
Here’s the problem. He rightly understands that most students and people who make decisions with them about college probably don’t know much, if anything, about contingent faculty issues, so after laying out the scope of contingency (with numbers that are reasonably current and accurate), he lists and explains the “4 reasons” his title promises.
1. Hiring high-quality candidates is difficult. Because of poor or no benefits, below-market wages, and little scheduling control, schools have a difficult time attracting and retaining high-quality adjunct instructors.
2. Teaching conditions are less than desirable. Many adjuncts work multiple jobs to subsist, and they often lack offices and other resources to be able to provide key support to students.
3. Course content may be predetermined. Adjuncts are often limited in their freedom to create their own syllabi and may be forced to use course materials that they are unfamiliar or unhappy with.
4. Classes are often staffed at the last minute. With little time to prepare, even the most dedicated adjuncts may struggle to develop thoughtful, engaging curricula.
I have no substantive objections to 2-4; they’re a little underdeveloped, sure, but it’s a blog post and the points are basically sound.
But the first one is profoundly mistaken. He’s right about the conditions, but he’s flatly wrong about the quality of faculty. It’s a common assumption among people who don’t do actual research about academic labor that adjunct faculty aren’t tenure-track because they’re not as good. It’s hooey. Especially as the job market in most academic disciplines has crashed over the last decade or more, we see more and more top-notch talents who, for lots of reasons, wound up in non-tenure-track positions. We also see a growing number of top-notch talents who choose to be off the tenure-track because it affords them options they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Beyond that–and as somebody who’s been accused more than once of saying things publicly on behalf of adjunct faculty that were more harmful than helpful, I know how easy this is–making that argument in the context of a piece that’s otherwise strongly supportive of better conditions for non-tenure-track faculty shoots his own argument in the foot. It’s hard to convince students and families to demand better treatment of adjunct faculty at the same time you’re announcing to them that those faculty are substandard.
On the off chance that Mr. Edmonds sees this post, I strongly encourage him to spend an hour watching the documentary Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor, and then maybe revisiting his post. What he’s trying to do is laudable, and much of the post follows through–but the part that doesn’t really doesn’t, and I hope there’s a way to fix that.